FROM THE ARCHIVE
Interior policy would hail end of Indian preference
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TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 20, 2001

Unless Congress steps in and resolves a question the Bush administration has yet to answer, thousands of Bureau of Indian Affairs employees will lose hiring preferences that transformed the agency from being run almost exclusively by non-Indians to one overseen by the people who are most affected by its decisions and policies.

A legal document drafted by the Reagan administration prevents the Department of Interior from expanding hiring and promotion practices that encourage the employment of American Indians and Alaska Natives. Congress and the courts have made clear that Indian preference applies only to the bureau's 12 regional agencies and its main Washington, D.C., headquarters, the department decided in 1988.

"Examination of the text, legislative history, purpose, administrative interpretation, and judicial construction," wrote then-Solicitor and Reagan appointee Ralph W. Tarr, "leads the conclusion that Indian preference applies only to the Bureau of Indian Affairs within the Department of Interior and to no other agency or position within the department."

Still in place until otherwise rescinded, the opinion would put an abrupt halt to nearly 70 years of Indian preference once the Bush administration makes the transition to the new Bureau of Indian Trust Asset Management. It would affect a vast majority of BIA employees who handle trust duties, which are carried out at all 12 regional offices and 87 field installations on a daily basis, according to Deputy Commissioner of Indian Affairs Sharon Blackwell, who oversees hiring.

The opinion, which overturned a prior one that suggested Indian preference might apply at various Interior offices, appears to answer a key question BIA employees have posed about the reorganization since it was announced last week. Job security and new hires are dramatically affected by the end of Indian preference, which was first enacted in 1934 in order to ensure the government wasn't unnecessarily passing over Native Americans for key positions.

At the time, only about 34 percent of BIA employees were Native, according to statistics. Now, nearly 90 percent are American Indian or Alaska Native, thanks to a policy that is also in place at the Indian Health Service, part of the Department of Health and Human Services.

Fearing a dramatic reversal, tribal leaders who have voiced criticism about the overhaul have put Indian preference at the top of their list of concerns. Some are already insisting Congress step in to ensure the BIA won't revert to its all-white past, a time when National Congress of American Indians president Susan Masten said the agency "functioned in a mode of high-handedness and paternalism."

"It has very sharp racist overtones," added Ron Allen, chairman of the Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe of Washington. "For anyone to point the finger at Indians as the reason for mistakes of the past has racist overtones."

Agreeing was former Assistant Secretary Kevin Gover, who stepped down from the post in January. He accused department officials who "believe Indian preference is the problem" of crafting a plan that would finally get rid of the policy.

"If there's a bureau of Indian trust assets, there's no Indian preference in that organization," he said.

Through the opinion, the Interior determined preference did not apply to Assistant Secretary's office, the Office of the Solicitor and other offices. Since then, the department has applied the no preference policy to the Office of the Special Trustee, which will retain its oversight of trust reform after the reorganization.

Last year, a Republican from Pennsylvania introduced a bill to repeal Indian preference. Rep. Curt Weldon charged it was the result of "racial preference," but his legislation has not seen action.

The Supreme Court in 1974 upheld Indian preference at the BIA.

Norton has not stated if she would support a preference law at her new agency. A request for comment was not returned.

Today on Indianz.Com:
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Reagan returns with new administration (4/18)
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Relevant Links:
Office of the Special Trustee - http://www.ost.doi.gov
Trust Management Improvement Project - http://www.doi.gov/bia/trust/tmip.htm
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton - http://www.indiantrust.com

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Norton stripping BIA of trust duties (11/16)
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Gover: Indian Country now 'weaker' (11/15)

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